The conviction of the first Guantánamo detainee tried in a civilian court on only one of more than 280 charges has reignited the debate over prosecuting terrorists.
Although a jury in New York City found Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani guilty of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, he was acquitted on murder and other conspiracy charges.
Republicans, opposed to the Obama administration's goal of mostly using federal courts rather than military tribunals to try terrorists, denounced the outcome. But their criticism ignores the peculiar circumstances of the trial, which unfolded uneventfully.
Because Ghailani had been held for nearly five years at a "black site" run by the CIA, where his lawyers said he was tortured, prosecutors faced severe hurdles in trying the case. They chose not to use statements he made while in CIA custody and at Gitmo to avoid having the issue of coerced testimony raised on a appeal.
While Judge Lewis A. Kaplan barred the testimony of a key witness, he noted that a military commission judge would have made a similar ruling. He also rejected defense motions to dismiss the case because of the alleged torture and years of detention -- two rulings that argue against outright dismissal of charges against other detainees. Kaplan also said that Ghailani's status as an "enemy combatant" would probably allow his continued detention even if he were found not guilty.
Despite the lone guilty verdict, Ghailani faces a minimum of 20 years in prison, and perhaps a life term, a harsher sentence than all but one of the few military tribunals that have met have meted out.
In short, the Ghailani trial does not prove that the federal courts cannot effectively handle terrorist cases. In addition, the flaws of the military commissions the critics tout as an alternative remain uncorrected.
The furies the verdict unleashed obscure the path to bringing accused terrorists to justice, which leaves them in limbo -- and away from mischief.